Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Engraving of two pigeons with messages tied to their legs

Manual for the Art and the Use of Messenger Pigeons


From Biblical texts to drug trafficking, pigeons have always been an effective method for getting a message from one place to another.

The first messenger pigeon was released in a Biblical text by Noah. Genghis Khan established pigeon post in Asia and much of Eastern Europe, while Carlomagno made pigeon racing a pursuit of the privileged classes. During the Middle Ages, the Arabs regularly used pigeons to carry messages and even capriciously: it is said that a Caliph in North Africa satisfied his craving for Lebanese cherries by using his pigeons to fly them to him. But they have never been more use than in the two World Wars, in which modern communications were rendered useless and pigeons were used as the method of keeping in touch with sympathizers and for opportunely advising of an attack.

No other bird has such close links with humans, nor been so useful as a symbol, sacrifice, source of food and a messenger, bot sacred and secular, as the common pigeon. But how do they know where to take their message? Contrary to the status that they now have in the majority of cities, where they are viewed as little more than rats with wings, pigeons are spectacularly intelligent and have a sense of orientation that is unprecedented in the animal kingdom. Furthermore, they can travel up to 500 miles a day.

The way in which carrier pigeons work is very simple: Once freed, the pigeons will always want to return to the place where they were brought up and fed, as far away as that may be. When this activity was in fashion, people transported pigeons by horse, boat or carriage, and from a remote place they would attach a message in the form of parchment to one of its legs and free it, and the pigeon would return ‘home.’

Pigeon fancying was, of course, one-directional. But one could have, for instance, two groups of pigeons: i.e. a group A in Paris and group B in Hamburg, with a regular route between the two cities. By exchanging pigeons that wanted to fly back to their nests, a two directional network could be created between two allies. With technological advances it is difficult to believe that that living and perhaps romantic system is still used, but it is. Except either as a hobby or the strangest of ways, such as among drug trafficking networks. It has ben detected that, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in an attempt to evade the technological advances in surveillance, some drug traffickers send flocks of pigeons to strategic sites with a cargo of 10 grams of heroin each.

Messenger pigeons on wooden shelves

We cannot deny the beauty in this form of messaging. Both imagining a message flying on a pigeon’s foot and the fact that the bird, like a sailor, only wants to return home. If one wants to train a pigeon to carry a message, this is what must be done:

1. Establish a base

First choose a place that will be the pigeons’ ‘home,’ the place they will always want to return to with the message. The house needs to have a door or trap that allows the pigeons to enter but prevents them from leaving when they want to. One can release the pigeons from as far as 125 miles away and they will always return there

2. Practice at intervals

One must acclimatize the pigeons, practicing with them at variable distances. First, use a cage to take them half a mile away. Free the pigeons there and they will fly home. This should be done several times in a week and then the range can be increased to two miles and the process repeated. After a couple of weeks one can go a distance of three miles and continue until 20 miles. This process will generate trust and resistance in the pigeons.

3. Water, food and incentives

If one wants to have two locations to deliver messages, one can create another route using incentives, but it takes a little longer. First the food must be taken out of the base; take the bird to the second location and feed it there. The pigeon will eat and eventually return home. If this process is repeated several times, the pigeon will migrate to both locations independently. The day one wants to deliver a message, the food is taken out of the ‘home’ base, the hungry bird is freed and it will find its own second route to feed itself and deliver the message.

4. Attach a message

The messages can be carried in tiny satchels. These have cloth straps around the bird’s shoulder because they are light and easy to design. One can also, in the traditional way, use little tubes with notes inside, tied to the pigeon’s foot.

Related Articles